Skip links

John O’Leary: A Bold Message of Tragedy, Perseverance, Triumph … And Selflessness

Like any in-demand motivational speaker, John O’Leary has a story that’s mind-blowing, inspiring, and double-stuffed with hope and optimism. But it’s the story within the story that may be the real story …

Let’s Start with the Real Story

Within moments of encountering John – whether in person, in an audience, or over the phone – certain things become quite obvious.

He is humble and sincere.

He is genuinely warm and friendly.

He’s easy to talk to and puts the other person at ease in a moment when fresh introductions often feel awkward.

John is not fond of being the center of attention [he saves that for his message].

He is whatever the opposite of self-aggrandizing is.

He cares. He genuinely cares … about other people, including you.

You also quickly learn some things about John that might surprise you. Actually, they do surprise you.

John is introverted and innately shy.

He’s not fond of crowds.

And he doesn’t like bright light.

Wait, what …? Shy, uncomfortable in crowds, and averse to bright light. You know, all elements of a corporate meeting or event – a stage, large audience, and lumen-happy stage lighting.

Yet he’s making a living as a motivational speaker? Yes … and what a speaker he is!

The Back Story

As a young, curious and explorative boy, John did what most any nine-year-old would do … what the older guys on the block were doing. It’s a coming-of-age thing that all boys experience as they seek to find their way in a big, wide, often confusing world. At that tender age, fitting in matters.

He was in the family garage back in St. Louis. There was a can of gasoline, a pack of matches, a sense of wonder … and you already know this is a story that won’t turn out well. [You may be surprised.]

The blast sent young John hurtling across the garage and slammed him into a wall. The flames were so forceful, the garage was a total loss and nine-year-old John ended up with burns over 100% of his body.

He was given a 1% chance of survival … a 1% chance.

Think about that for a moment. A kid being told there’s a 99% chance he won’t live long enough to ride a bike again, play catch in the backyard, celebrate a double-digit birthday, chase his dreams, or kiss his first date. Let that sink in.

As he lay in his bed in the hospital, swathed in bandages and enveloped by intense pain, he heard his mother’s voice.

“Mom,” he asked, “am I going to be okay?”

Sensing the need for brutally pure truth at a moment when most of us would do what we thought was the kind thing and sugar-coat the horrific, seemingly hopeless situation, his mother rallied her courage and did something miraculous in itself.

“John,” she said, “do you want to die? It’s your choice, not mine.”

Young John thought for a moment and responded: “Mom, I don’t want to die. I want to live.”

That was 37 years ago. John is alive and more than well. And he is amazing.

Everybody’s Got Something

“If you think you can’t, you won’t,” John says matter-of-factly. “And if you think you can’t but still want to try, you’ll succeed. It’s that simple.” Says the man who spent five of his boyhood months lying in a hospital, enduring dozens and dozens of surgeries and, later, years of physical therapy.

“If you think you can’t but still want to try, you’ll succeed. It’s that simple …”

As we dash through our lives – rising and readying for work, getting kids off to school, running errands, doing all the things that need to be done – we’re often so consumed by our own pressing priorities that we’re oblivious to what’s going on with others.

Imagine standing in a long line at a corner Starbucks and there are thought bubbles floating over the heads of each person in front of you. They might read …

I just got divorced.

I lost my job.

My kid’s a mess.

A cancer diagnosis at 37 …?

How am I going to make rent this month?

The point is everybody’s got something. Nobody gets through life without a few scrapes and bruises. Okay, a lot of scrapes and bruises. And in one young man’s case, more than a few burns. But the challenges, the setbacks, the sometimes horrific occurrences can only define you if you let them.

“It’s how you deal with things that matter most. It takes perseverance, and perseverance starts with showing up,” John says. “We often make the guy on stage speaking to an audience the hero. The one who was so broken, or so badly burned, in such bad shape, and somehow managed to overcome. That was me. But the heroes were all the people behind me. My guardians, my siblings, my parents, the doctors and nurses, even the janitors cleaning the hospital every day.

“Those people changed the life of a little boy that wasn’t supposed to make it. And now that little boy, me, is trying to change the lives of others for the better. To help them understand, no matter what, if you want to succeed, if you want to overcome, if you want to find hope when there doesn’t seem to be hope anywhere, you will.

“It comes down to perseverance and ‘the breath’ – living and breathing in the moment, the now, and doing the very best you can with what you’ve got. Right now.”

Nearly four decades after that horrifying day in a St. Louis garage, John O’Leary is the living, breathing, walking, talking personification of that philosophy. He has taught millions around the globe how to live an inspired life, day in and day out.

Despite the crowds, his shy nature and bright stage lights, he has spoken in all but one of the 50 states, dozens of countries around the world, and authored two books – the curiously titled On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life [March 2016]and In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning and Joy [May 2020]. And this fall, a major motion picture will be released chronicling John’s life journey.

dynami booked John as a motivational speaker before an audience of several hundred in Las Vegas earlier this year. In keeping with his message of perseverance, he somehow managed to make it to Vegas in time for his keynote address despite weather-driven flight cancellations, a mad dash to alternative airports in Southern California, and finally a 275-mile drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

When I tell you John was outstanding, I’m grossly understating matters. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more inspiring speaker.

A 1% chance to live. A 99% likelihood of dying … and 96.87%. That was his approval rating in our post-event survey of the audience.

Need I say more?



P.S. – Learn more about John O’Leary at